Untold Stories from Vivienne Westwood’s Fashion Legacy

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When Vivienne Westwood first began designing clothes in 1971 with the opening of her first boutique in London, Let it Rock, she would change the name of her store every time she unveiled a new collection. By 1974, Westwood renamed her shop Sex and alongside her then-boyfriend and business partner Malcolm McLaren, she ushered in modern punk to the fashion mainstream. The grand dame of British design began dressing infamous punk group the Sex Pistols while McLaren served as their manager, subverting establishment norms and launching an artistic movement in the process.

Westwood: Punk. Icon. Activist., which premieres on June 8th, charts the rise of the revolutionary-turned-designer, whose eye for striking image would influence global fashion for decades to come. Her meticulous nature serves as a reoccurring theme, as well as her fanaticism for inspiring political change through art. Although the main focus is on her designs and iconic role in the fashion world, the film also paints a portrait of the eclectic and rebellious designer who was greatly shaped by her relationships with romantic partners throughout her life.

Below, the most fascinating takeaways we learned about Westwood through the documentary.

Westwood brought punk to the mainstream

As the young designer began experimenting with fetish-wear and other aspects of BDSM, including bondage trousers, safety pinks, and chains, her radical pieces attracted the attention of the likes of legends Jerry Hall and Iggy Pop. While punk attire in the U.S. mainly involved wearing black, across the pond, usages of tartan and bright pops of color were used to revolt against the establishment. Westwood was credited with crafting the designs most commonly associated with Britain’s disenfranchised punk youth in its ’70s heyday, including ripped t-shirts resembling straitjackets (that the Pistols would often spot onstage during performances), printed slogans, and dyed spiky hair. It was Westwood herself who designed and sewed them in her small flat in south London.

By 1981, Westwood and McLaren brought the underground style to the public thanks to their first fashion show, Pirates. The line became an instant success with Britain’s youth and Westwood became the irreverent queen of punk. Westwood’s early training in fine art also came in handy, earning her critical recognition for her 17th and 18th century cutting techniques and cutting lines, which other designers began to emulate in their own creations.

Her designs contained political calls to action

Although Westwood is known today for championing public awareness of climate change and environmental activism, she was first associated with rebelling against the deeply entrenched social and class structure in Britain. Hailing from a working class family herself, Westwood wanted to „undermine the establishment“ and „show that we didn’t accept the values of the older generation,“ she said in the documentary. Her usage of the swastika symbol (most infamously donned by Pistols bassist Sid Vicious) in her early designs signaled a rejection of the ideals of the older World War II-era generation and is still questioned by critics of her work to this day.

While Westwood sought to rebel against English society, her clothes quickly became the fabric of mainstream fashion design during the ’70s (the designer notes at one point in the film that her colorful, cropped spiky hairstyles, which were meant to subvert traditional English beauty norms, appeared in the glossy pages of Vogue the next month). „I realized we weren’t really attacking the establishment at all,“ she said. „It was all being marketed all the time.“

After Westwood joined the Paris Fashion Week roster, opting to officially show her collections in the fashion capital, her clothing gained international recognition and drove a wedge between her and McLaren. Spurned in part by her rapid ascent in the industry, the pair eventually parted ways during the mid-’80s but their son, Joe Corré rebelled in his own way by rejecting the aesthetic formed by his parents and establishing his own lingerie brand, Agent Provocateur.

Westwood’s designs were originally mocked by the non-fashion crowd

While her clothing was heralded on the runways in Paris and London, Westwood held a distaste for the way in which the British press treated her when she first launched her clothing line. One scene in particular has Westwood as a guest on a BBC show, while models strutted across the stage wearing the latest pieces from her Fall/Winter 1989 Time Machine collection. Laughter from the audience could be heard throughout the broadcast and the hosts themselves seemed to mock the budding designer while on-air. „You design not because they’re witty but because you believe they’re attractive and that they make people more attractive?“ the host asked her at one point, to which Westwood cheekily replied, „Yeah, something like that.“

While the press had poked fun at her, Westwood openly embraced high fashion and in turn, British society openly embraced her back, showing that despite all of her earlier efforts to revolt against the establishment, she quickly joined their ranks and success. In 1992, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Westwood the Order of the British Empire, to which Westwood accepted, true-to-form, while wearing a grey suit, skirt, and no panties.

She helped launch gender neutral clothing

Long before the gender fluidity movement took hold in fashion, Westwood was designing skirts and frocks for men and suits for women. When Westwood began experimenting with historical dress, printed tunics, and square-toed shoes following her separation from McLaren, she also began veering away from her earlier punk aesthetic. Her newer collections included eclectic mixing of fair isle, tartan, and corsets inspired by medieval armor. By delving back into the past for inspiration, Westwood’s four-decade long career has taken heavy cues from art and literature to re-interpret archival symbols and elements from history.

By introducing color and mixed patterns with huge voluminous skirts and billowy silhouettes, Westwood also spearheaded another revolutionary concept to the British mainstream: gender-fluid dressing. Her clothing was worn by both men and women and the designer asserted that her collections weren’t about sexual or gender identity but for the „enjoyment of life.“ It’s a sentiment that Westwood later reiterated for her Fall/Winter 2016 collection, blurring the lines between gender and sex in a presentation aptly named „Unisex.“ She sent male models down the runway in red velvet togas and thigh-high boots while women were adorned in large, boxy blazers.

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